We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The moment we are living in, Ogden concedes in her opening paragraph, might seem to call for something more definitive. “The world burns,” she announces, “yet the fire is not bright enough to read a map by.” (She knows, of course, that the word apocalypse comes from the Greek apokalypsis, which means “revelation.”) What if the end of the world brings no great insight? How can we live in its encroaching shadow without any wisdom to guide us? What if all we get is more “mundanity, duration, bullshit”?
Troubled as she is by these questions, Ogden ultimately shrugs them off, not to minimize their importance, but to suggest a possible solution. Perhaps we can live without knowledge. Perhaps we need something else altogether. Ogden’s book is dedicated to narrating what that something else might be, to helping us imagine how not knowing can enable us to navigate everyday life in what might be its last inglorious gasp.
But those who say they know nothing are rarely in earnest, and readers may have trouble crediting Ogden’s claims to ignorance. Here she is comparing her modest ambitions to those of Herman Melville’s Ahab, who seeks the Leviathan: “To see the encrusted form might be best, but to attend to the minnows as they present themselves is better than to feign a monumental vision and live by it. In this book, I try to resist the temptation to turn away from things as I find them — blurry, quicksilver, unhandsome.” How often, we might ask, do muddle and fog result in such luminous prose?
Ogden’s lyricism, notwithstanding her posture of benightedness, is the kind typically enlisted to deliver epiphanies. An ungenerous reading would accuse her of merely affecting humility. A more careful reading would recognize that her book lacks any such pretense. Indeed no trace of self-deprecation qualifies her exacting style — which raises the question of what exactly justifies it, if not some unique purchase on the truth.
The apparent contradiction between Ogden’s premise and her style dissolves, however, if we recognize that surrendering knowledge can be just as difficult as attaining it. “When I talk about unknowing,” she observes, “I am not talking about the refusal to know what can be known, or about the simple accident of not having found something out yet, nor even, although this is warmer, about the fact that we will each absorb only a finite amount of knowledge in the course of our finite lives. Instead, I am talking about a capacity to hold the position of not knowing yet — possibly of not knowing ever.” Ogden refers to unknowing as a “capacity.” We might also call it a discipline, one that requires practice, concentration, and study.
The emphasis in higher education on knowledge production may thwart our ability to see unknowing as a form of study. But if we consider what teachers do, at least half of it is helping people unlearn things they have learned before — whether it’s a swim teacher exhorting students to stop lifting their heads out of the water when they breathe, or a writing instructor warning her first-year undergraduates against opening their essays with sweeping generalizations encompassing human history since the dawn of time. The difficult lesson of Ogden’s book, in whose service she dedicates her precise and poetic style, is to relinquish not just a particular mode of knowledge, but our faith in knowledge itself as the basis for a good, meaningful life.
All words do this work, but Ogden is especially interested in the words used by poets. With no particular claim on the truth, poetry in her conception does not offer explanations — does not seek to justify itself. It just makes a space that is there for anyone who happens to notice it and chooses to enter. When writers play with words, she argues, “Something cannot help but appear out of nothing. And thus you can inflate for yourself a room whose capacity is right. This room would be expansive enough that the body can move, enclosed enough that the mind can rest. Then sometimes, others can use these rooms too, after the writer is finished with them. It is as though writing can be perceived as an environment.” The question Ogden wants us to ask when we encounter a poem, a novel, or a song is not whether it accurately describes the world, but whether the place its words make is somewhere we would like to stay — whether the atmosphere that hangs on its sentences can nourish us. More important than whether a text offers knowledge, in other words, is whether it can provide shelter and rest.
The difficult lesson of Ogden’s book is to relinquish not just a particular mode of knowledge, but our faith in knowledge itself as the basis for a good, meaningful life.
Great works of art do even more. Ogden writes that Aretha Franklin, in singing “Amazing Grace,” “finds seconds between seconds, until time is doubled, tripled, squared, cubed. There is time inside time. She is not walking forward through time toward death, but inward through time to a room. As Franklin delays the resumption of the ballad stanza’s three-beat, four-beat pattern, minutes are added to your life.” Intensely experiencing art for Ogden is like getting to sit still within a little room, while time rushes by on all sides. It is like spending a seemingly immeasurable interval on a trans-Atlantic flight westward and discovering upon landing that it’s only two hours later than when you departed. (Incidentally, the books I read on such excursions often stay with me longer than other books, reminding me of the pocket of timelessness we shared.)
But such experiences are paradoxically transient. Inevitably the shelters made of words that we discover or create for ourselves eventually change or fall apart. We are forced to seek out new fortifications.
The word Ogden uses to describes this migration from one set of terms, one way of thinking, to another is “riffing.” She compares the process to a Steve Reich piece for two pianos:
Things shift; without there being a definable moment of change, the pattern is no longer the same one. It is as if the first player’s hands gradually recruit some extra notes to themselves while dropping others, until the pattern becomes fully what you could sense it was leaning over to become. It resolves. But it does not resolve some unitary problem. It isn’t that the pianists were operating under an illusion in Phase 1, and now, in Phase 2, they see things as they are. No; attachment to Phase 2 is also not the point. It, too, will fall out of phase to be replaced by something else.
Reich’s music is a model for a kind of thinking that leads to no final truth. When we operate this way, according to Ogden, we accept a paradigm not because it is correct but because it is where we are and where we are at home. But each discursive pattern changes as it lives and repeats within our mind, or as we live within it, until it becomes something else. So we experience our thinking over time as a series of riffs, each one slowly becoming the next, with no clear boundaries between them and no goal.
On Not Knowing is itself a sequence of riffs. Each chapter picks up a stray idea or image left dangling by the last, and plays with it until it changes into something different, which then provides the opening theme for the next chapter. “How to Give Birth” discusses the passage of language and identity from Ogden to her children, which leads in the next essay to another form of transmission: milking, first cows and then, using a breast pump, herself. The machine sounds to her ominously like the command “rape her,” though Ogden admits she feels neither addressed nor violated. A chapter later, rape recurs with her as the victim, but she glosses over her own sexual assault, turning instead to discuss how Narcissus is raped before he becomes transfixed by his own reflection. But Ogden offers an alternate explanation for his rapture: Sitting by the pool, Narcissus notices that his head casts a shadow where fish can gather to escape the sunlight — a metaphor, perhaps, for what writers do.
In the next chapter the animals congregating are not fish but sheep. “The joke of herding cats,” Ogden wryly notes, “has become necessary only because fewer and fewer Americans have any direct experience with how impossible it is simply to herd sheep.” But in this exhausting work she finds a model for making peace with a world that insistently defies our plans and hopes.
The connections between episodes are never explicit and rarely obvious. Ogden is not making a rational argument consisting of demarcated steps that progress toward a culminating insight; she’s just riffing. Her preferred device is juxtaposition. “Meanwhile,” she writes, “is the defining adverb of the pastoral: the pastoral happens meanwhile, when all is, for the moment, sorted out for the sheep.” The idyllic moment is just two things occurring alongside each other: the sheep grazing, the shepherd singing. Love, too, may be nothing more than juxtaposition. Ogden cites a nursery rhyme:
If I had a donkey
that wouldn’t go,
D’you think I’d beat him?
Oh, no, no.
I’d put him in a barn
And give him some corn,
The best little donkey
that ever was born.
“The non sequitur,” she says, “is what takes my breath away. No pause to justify the donkey. … No: there is simply no reasoning about it. He refuses; you will care and praise.” The farmer and the donkey, like the lines in the poem, seem ill-matched, but a serendipitous affection grows out of their proximity. Knowledge seeks or inserts causal linkages; Ogden simply sees juxtapositions: one thing alongside another, one moment followed by the next. Connections can be made, but they are the work of desire, or terror, or wonder, not logic.
Ogden’s refusal to impose an explanatory or moral scheme onto the myriad people, animals, and objects whose gatherings and dispersals she observes makes her markedly noncommittal. Her tone throughout the book hovers among possible attitudes. It is never stunned, angry, sarcastic, cynical, whimsical, or knowing, though it drifts in moments toward these options — always close enough to some definite ground to maintain its grip on gravity. Particularly when she addresses topics typically thought to merit solemnity or outrage, Ogden’s reticence can seem to verge on indifference. Her own rape gets half a paragraph. “I was 20; it was when I was traveling in Greece. He had eyes of the sort that always miss all other eyes. I came to midway through whatever he was doing, and I left or was permitted to leave. Maybe I had been drugged. It is not completely clear to me what happened. Another man’s irritation blankly, voluptuously addressed.”
Her model is Elizabeth Hardwick. In Sleepless Nights, Ogden acerbically remarks, “the fact that she was raped comes up a couple of times, never at a high level in the pecking order of any sentence.” Throughout On Not Knowing, wit seems to arrive only in response to the most terrifying situations. Describing a miscarriage, she writes, “Sitting on the hospital bed, I bled as politely as I could, down through all the pads and tampons I had brought.” In the same chapter, commenting on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s inability to mourn his son’s death, Ogden identifies with his fear that outward displays will compromise the strong feelings they are designed to express, transforming authentic pain into hypocrisy. We might also read her composure as a strategy. Rape, she notes, has “an aboutness.” For its victims it makes the whole world about itself. “How,” she asks, “does a person stop it from doing that?” Her laconic style is one attempt at an answer.
To do what Ogden is advising — to find a basis even for qualified hope — in the present moment may, she admits, be foolish. But that it is foolish does not make it easy. Sustaining the kind of foolishness necessary for emotional survival requires complex mental tricks and the unwitting participation of others.
In Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush,” Ogden says, the poet dramatizes our need to hang our hopes on other, less knowledgeable beings. Affecting cynicism, the speaker can find no cause among “terrestrial things” for the bird’s joyful song. But who is the real fool? The bird for blithely serenading a cruel world or the poet for projecting the optimism that he cannot acknowledge as his own onto the bird? We do the same, Ogden admits, with our children. One of hers almost drowned. She concludes her book explaining how she talks about the incident with her son. “He says he doesn’t want to fall into a pond again. I tell him his father and I will always be near if he is near water, and we will scoop him up. This is not true. But I’ll be his fool.” We tell ourselves we have no choice; our children demand reassurance. And we love them. We must subscribe to certain fictions for their sake. But who needs the reassurance more? Who is licensing whose foolishness?
On Not Knowing is generally committed to giving readers greater license to be foolish, finding in poems, songs, and stories temporary shelters designed to make life somewhat more livable. Whether we should be permitted our foolishness is not a question Ogden troubles over. After all, if we do need to indulge in a little foolishness together — when we tell our children stories or when we read poetry, in search of hope or calm — can we be blamed? Is it really the end of the world? And if the answer to that last question were yes, would it change anything?